Alan’s Bi-Weekly Life Of… Grilling!

Fourth of July weekend means a lot of things but my second favorite is grilling food. Fireworks are awesomeness in their own right, but my experience with playing with those is mostly passive; I do enjoy the occasional sparkler. Grilling, however, is very active and echoes primal feelings. Plus it makes for very tasty food.

Let me get one quick definition set out of the way. I define grilling as direct-heat cooking using charcoal fuel and a metal grill grate. I’m not saying that I am barbecuing as I define BBQ as indirect heat. Nor do I include gas grills in my definition. Yeah, I’m a snob like that. Other methods are certainly forms of cooking and many of them are tasty, but when I say grilling I mean I’m cooking by burning charcoal directly under the food.

Grilling was generally something I’d see at other people’s houses growing up. In Daly City, the fog really puts a damper on being outside, and I’m guessing most bbq grills fell apart from the rust. At family parties I’d have wonderfully charred meat done in a Korean kalbi-style, but I never saw it cooked. I knew there was a difference between a hamburger cooked in a restaurant and one cooked outside on a summer day in a park (outside of Daly City). I wasn’t fully awakened to the flavors and process of grilling until I went to college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

SLO is a much warmer climate. It has hot days all the time, and being full of nearly-broke college students economical eating abounds. Thus, grilling. Countless house parties and school events called for feeding lots of people continuously and cooking on a grill handles this excellently. Even a large kitchen has a hard time keeping up with demands of multiple eaters without a large staff. A grill can be run very efficiently by a small number of people and food with various cooking rates is easily handled as long as there is grill space. Also, there’s very little equipment — no pots, pans, measuring cups — food goes onto the grill and the next stop is generally someone’s plate.

I learned how to grill the Cal Poly way — Learn By Doing. I’d go to a party and I would just buy more of whatever everyone else was getting and I’d just cordially go second on the grill and copy everyone else’s grill habits. Luckily I quashed any bad ones as I went. I started with easy food like sausage that you pretty much just cook until it looks done. Especially easy is any poultry sausage which is pre cooked, so it’s just heat and eat! Fast-cooking shrimp on skewers is very easy. Strip-steak also cooks quickly and has a good tolerance for being a little over- or under-cooked. Full size steaks are just a matter of checking occasionally with a meat thermometer. Burgers are similar to steaks in easy, and are fun to customize for flavor if the patties are hand-formed rather than totally store bought. Chicken breast requires a bit more attention to get the right amount of cooking and preventing dryness, but that leads to marinades and rubs which when applied to all the other foods opens up all sorts of flavors. Besides shrimp, fish fillets and steaks are becoming more common in supermarkets and are good to grill as well. Oh, and most vegetables hold up well when skewered and grilled: tomatoes, onions, peppers, and zucchini.

I grilled a lot at college. I lived in an apartment without a balcony or deck, though, so I continued to grill at other people’s houses. I indulged a lot in the prep of the food, but really never with the grill itself. This all changed when I moved out to Sunnyvale with new wife Julie and we got our first grill from Julie’s uncle-in-law — a Weber Smokey Joe Simpsons edition grill. I plopped the grill out on the deck and built a fire using fire-starter bricks under a pyramid of charcoal just like the packaging said to, and it worked great! I believe the first meal we cooked on it was skewered shrimp marinated in lime and lots of garlic. I noticed, though, that the smell was different than I was used to on a grill. It turns out that all this time when I smelled grilling I was actually smelling lighter fluid. I had somehow skipped over that step when grilling as one of the first accessories I bought for my grill was a chimney starter which allows for the coals to get hot without the use of smelly (and flavor-altering) lighter fluid.

Burning wood (in this case pre-burned, compressed wood in the form of charcoal briquettes) to cook food is a great feeling for me. It’s a much deeper connection to cooking than any other method I’ve done. The caveman-simple nature of the cooking really resonates with me, and I have no problem tending the grill to make sure the food comes out great. If you’re thinking of grilling, allow me to make a few suggestions:

Get a chimney starter. As I said before, they shrink the dead time between pouring the coals and cooking the food all without any weird additives. Despite this, I found sometimes I was still impatient and I found a way to get the coals hot faster. The chimney starter uses a small wad of newspaper in the bottom to quickly light the coals on the bottom and the heat and flame moves upward to get all the coals hot around the same time. The bottom ones are obviously started first, and the way to get the top ones started faster is to have a hotter fire, so I will splash some of the newspaper with some cooking oil as an accelerant.

Oil should also be used on the grill before cooking to enhance heat transfer from the grill grate as well as prevent sticking. I splash some cooking oil on a paper towel then using the grill tongs, slide it around on the grate with the coals going to make the grate be nice and shiny.

Try different charcoals. The venerable big white-and-blue bag of Kingston is good, but there are some specialty charcoals like ones with mesquite or other woods that provide excellent smoke flavor. There are even some charcoal that is still in more or less a natural wood state rather than reconstituted into briquettes. This hardwood charcoal is excellent for flavor but the irregular nature of it will invariably cause hot and cold spots.

Sometimes, though, you want deliberate hot and cold spots to control cooking rates. I use a three stage fire where one side of the grill has a very hot spot with roughly two layers of coals, the middle has a single layer of coals and the other side is empty.

A vegetable grilling basket — essentially a metal bowl with holes in it — is great for cooking not only vegetables but also shrimp if skewers are not your thing.

If skewers are your thing be sure to soak them in water before threading the food onto them. Alternately, get some good metal skewers.

Grill fruit. Pineapple, peaches, apples, and figs work especially well. The sugars caramelize and become a wonderfully different flavor.

Using the extra space on a grill to make garlic-cheese bread will keep ’em coming back.

Soak whole ears of corn in water for 15-30 minutes, peel back the husks, remove the silk, baste in butter, lime or lemon juice, salt and pepper, or some combination of the above, pull the husks back over the corn then throw on the grill. Cook until the corn husks begin the blacken then take them off. Peel the slightly charred husks until they turn into a handle and soon everyone’s eating their vegetables.

If you’re making your own burger patties try adding some of the following to the mix.: garlic, blue cheese, jalapeno peppers, bacon, or all of the above?

Don’t forget the most important ingredient when grilling: guests.

Let’s get to those coals!


  1. Kevin

    Keep the leftover corn cobs in the freezer and add them to the next charcoal pile (let thaw first) – adds a sweetness to the smoke (more of that caramelization, not to be confused with the Maillard Reaction). Plus, free combustible media.

  2. Julie

    I’m still impressed by your eye for grilling, and managing the different pockets of heat. Gotta try out those figs tomorrow!

    The shape of the metal skewers was a learning experience for me. Metal skewers that are flat (or a flat-ish shape) make a big difference for keeping the food in place. If you’re using ones that are cylindrical, what tends to happen is the food will start spinning freely around them once you move them from one place to another…say, from prep surface to grill (spin), flipping it on the grill (more spinning, possibly dislodging), and back to a plate.

    One way to mitigate this, short of having flat skewers, is to use two skewers in parallel. Those can be trickier to align with the food. There’s a greater likelihood of poking yourself pretty good while attempting to do that. Ow…

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